Insomnia | Essays

The Theorem of the Accursed Share

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by James Benedict

This essay was originally published as part of Jean Baudrillard's "La transparence du mal: Essai sur les phénomènes extrèmes" (1990), translated into English in 1993 as "The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena".

The uninterrupted production of positivity has a terrifying consequence. Whereas negativity engenders crisis and critique, hyperbolic positivity for its part engenders catastrophe, for it is incapable of distilling crisis and criticism in homeopathic doses. Any structure that hunts down, expels or exorcizes its negative elements risks catastrophe caused by a thoroughgoing backlash, just as any organism that hunts down and eliminates its germs, bacteria, parasites or other biological antagonists risks metastasis and cancer -- in other words, it is threatened by a voracious positivity of its own cells, or, in the viral context, by the prospect of being devoured by its own -- now unemployed -- antibodies.
   Anything that purges the accursed share in itself signs its own death warrant. This is the theorem of the accursed share.
   The energy of the accursed share, and its violence, are expressions of the principle of Evil. Beneath the transparency of the consensus lies the opacity of evil -- the tenacity, obsessiveness and irreducibility of the evil whose contrary energy is at work everywhere: in the malfunctioning of things, in viral attacks, in the acceleration of processes and in their wildly chaotic effects, in the overriding of causes, in excess and paradox, in radical foreignness, in strange attractors, in linkless chains of events.
   The principle of Evil is not a moral principle but rather a principle of instability and vertigo, a principle of complexity and foreignness, a principle of seduction, a principle of incompatibility, antagonism and irreducibility. It is not a death principle -- far from it. It is a vital principle of disjunction. Since the Garden of Eden, which Evil's advent closed to us, Evil has been the principle of knowledge. But if indeed we were chased from the Garden for the sin knowledge, we may as well draw the maximum benefit from it. Trying to redeem the accursed share or the principle of Evil can result only in the establishment of new artificial paradises, those of the consensus, which for their part do indeed embody a true death principle.
   To analyse present-day systems in their catastrophic reality, to consider not only their failures and aporias but also the way in which they sometimes succeed only too well and get lost in the delusion of their own functioning, is to come face to face at every turn with the theorem or equation of the accursed share, and to find its indestructible symbolic power confirmed every time.
   Going over to the side of the principle of Evil implies making a choice in every sphere that is not only critical but also criminal. In any society, even a liberal one (such as ours!), this kind of choice cannot be publicly expressed. A stated position in support of the non-human or of the principle of Evil will be rejected by any value system (by "principle of Evil" here I mean nothing more than the simple stating of a few hard truths concerning values, law, power, reality, etc.). In this respect there is no difference at all between East, West, North or South. And there is not the slightest chance of seeing an end to this intolerant attitude, as opaque and crystalline as a glass wall, which no progress in the sphere of either morality or immorality has managed to modify.
   The world is so full of positive feelings, naive sentimentality, self-important rectitude and sycophancy that irony, mockery and the subjective energy of evil are always in the weaker position. At this rate every last negative sentiment will soon be forced into a clandestine existence. Already the merest gibe tends to meet with incomprehension. It will soon be impossible to express reservations about anything at all. We shall have nothing left but disgust and consternation.
   Fortunately, the evil genie has taken up residence in things: this is the objective energy of evil. No matter how we choose to describe whatever it is that seeks thus to find a way forward -- the accursed share, or strange attractors, destiny, or a hypersensitive response to initial conditions -- we shall not be able to avoid its ever-increasing strength, its exponential trajectory or the veritable pataphysics of incommensurable effects that it will generate. The excentric development of our systems is ineluctable. As Hegel put it, we are amid "the life, moving of itself, of that which is dead". Once certain limits have been passed there is no relationship between cause and effect, merely viral relationships between one effect and another, and the whole system is driven by inertia alone. The development of this increase in strength, this velocity and ferocity of what is dead, is the modern history of the accursed share. It is not up to us to explain this: rather, we must be its mirror in real time. We must outpace events, which themselves long ago outpaced liberation. The reign of incoherence, anomaly and catastrophe must be acknowledged, as must the vitality of all those extreme phenomena which toy with extermination while at the same time answering to certain mysterious rules.
   It is in the nature of Evil, as it is in the nature of the accursed share, that it regenerates in proportion as it is expended. Economically speaking this is outrageous, much as the inseparability of Good and Evil can be outrageous from a metaphysical point of view. But if violence is thus done to reason, we must nevertheless acknowledge the vitality of this violence, the vitality of an unforeseeable indordinacy which carries things beyond their original goals and makes them hyperdependent on other ultimate ends (but which?).
   All liberation affects Good and Evil equally. The liberation of morals and minds entails crimes and catastrophes. The liberation of law and pleasure leads inevitably to the liberation of crime (something which Sade understood well -- and for that he has never been forgiven).
   In the USSR perestroika has been characterized not only by ethnic and political demands but also by a surge of accidents and natural catastrophes (including crimes and accidents of the past, now disinterred). A kind of spontaneous terrorism has emerged in response to liberalization and the extension of human rights. All this, we are told, was already there -- but censored. (One of the most deeply felt criticisms directed against the former Stalinist regime is that it deprived us of the many bloody events it censored, thus rendering them useless save as part of a political unconscious to be inherited by future generations; that it froze or deep-froze the titillating and bloodcurdling details of these crimes; and that, like the Nazis in the case of the Holocaust (another almost perfect crime), it flouted the universal law of information.)
   But there is more to this phenomenon than the lifting of censorship: the fact is that crime, delinquency and catastrophe rush towards the screen of glasnost like flies towards artificial light (why, incidentally, are flies never attracted to natural light?). This catastrophic surplus-value arises from an enthusiasm, almost a passion, on the part of nature, and equally from a spontaneous propensity of technology to indulge its own whims as soon as the political conditions are ripe. Frozen out for so long, crimes and catastrophes thus make their joyous and official entrance. If they did not exist they would have to be invented, for there can be no question that they are ultimately the true signs of freedom and the natural disorder of the world.

The totality constituted by Good and Evil together transcends us, but we should accept it totally. There can be no intelligence of things so long as this fundamental rule is ignored. The illusion that the two can be distinguished in order to promote one or the other is absurd. (This applies to the proponents of evil for evil's sake as much as to anyone else, for they will end up doing good.)
   All kinds of events are out there, impossible to predict. They have already occurred, or are just about to heave into view. All we can do is train our searchlight, as it were, and keep our telescopic lens on this virtual world in the hope that some of those events will be obliging enough to allow themselves to be captured. Theory can be no more than this: a trap set in the hope that reality will be naive enough to fall into it.
   The essential thing is to point the searchlight the right way. Unfortunately, we don't know which way that is. We can only comb the sky. In most instances the events are so far away, metaphysically speaking, that they merely cause a slight phosphorescence on the screen. They have to be developed and enlarged, like photographs. Not in order to discover their meaning, however: they are not logograms, but holograms. They can no more be explained than the fixed spectrum of a star or the variations of red.

To capture such strange events, theory itself must be remade as something strange: as a perfect crime, or as a strange attractor.